Rendille - The Stages of Life

In this page:
The Rendille calendar
Boys and warriors
Women and marriage

The Rendille Calendar

The Rendille calendar functions according to a procession of seven-or fourteen-year cycles, which is based on both lunar and solar aspects. Map of Rendille migrationsThe calendar, which is passed down in oral tradition, is essential for determining not only the various life-stages through which men must pass before being able to marry as elders, but also regulates with clockwork-like precision the various movements of the Rendille clans through their traditional territory, thus avoiding conflicts over forage and water rights, and preventing overgrazing which would otherwise quickly turn their already marginal lands into a completely sterile desert. The calendar also has implications for women in the form of the sepaade institution, by which women of a specific cyclical age-set delay their age at marriage, which significantly reduces overall Rendille fertility.
   Every seven (or fourteen) years, there is a general shifting up in status of the various male age-sets, from childhood to boyhood to warriorhood and to elderhood.

Boys and warriors

As with the Maasai and Samburu, a Rendille man's life is marked by several clearly defined stages, which determine his occupation, when he can marry, and his status in general.

To start is boyhood, when he lives in the gob settlement with his parents, unmarried women and other children. His duties here are to look after the small herds goats or sheep around the settlement, and helping their mothers tend the milk camels. Once he becomes older, but is not yet circumcised, he starts helping the older circumcised boys of the preceding age-set in the houseless livestock camps (fora) far from the gob, tending camels, or cattle in the case of the Ariaal.

After this apprenticeship, the boy is finally circumcised in the seventh year of the calendar, which marks his formal initiation into Rendille society, and with it he joins the warrior age-set, where he will remain for eleven years. The circumcision is a public event, and a matter of great pride. As Wade Davis reports of the Ariaal:

"You sit perfectly still," Jonathan remembers, "legs apart, with your back supported by your closest friend. They pour milk on you. Everyone is singing or yelling, warning you not to flinch. All your family promises animals, if you are brave. You can build up a herd just with those frantic promises. But you are so intent. Your only hope that the blade is sharp. It's over in seconds, but it seems like years."
   Should a boy reveal the slightest expression of fear or pain as the nine cuts are made to his foreskin, he will shame his clan forever and possibly be beaten to death. Few fail, for the honor is immense."

A new age-set of warriors is formed once every fourteen years, which means that the ages of warriors vary from around fourteen to well into their thirties. Their social function is threefold: to graze and water the livestock, to protect the livestock and the people from attack (and raid others, of course), and - important for the elders ensconced in the relative luxury of the gob with their wives - to keep them out of temptation's way!
   Their camps (fora) are extremely rudimentary, and generally have no structures. The boys and warriors sleep on the ground, and live on spartan diet consisting of soups made from wild herbs as well as from the milk and blood of the livestock (as with other nomadic tribes, the animals are not killed for this - a small incision with a knife or arrow is made near the animal's jugular to tap the blood; once enough has been collected, the hole is stopped with herbs or a special kind of mud with antiseptic properties).

Women and marriage

For a description or marriage festivities, see the section on Music & Dance

Apart from the rather loose practice of sepaade, no corresponding age-sets exist for the women, but as members of Rendille society their social roles relate directly to the male age-set system. Women essentially are classified according to their matrimonial status, either as unmarried or as married.

The end of the rainy season is a time of great joy and festivities, and a most propitious time for marriage. But for the majority of Rendille women, the transition from maidenhood to matrimony is marked by he painful rite of clitoridectomy (in this case, excision of the clitoris and labia minora), which takes place in private on the morning of her wedding. This event nonetheless marks the most important status-transition in the life of a woman, and although Rendille culture is changing fast, a recent survey found that "almost all informants indicated that they will have their daughters circumcised."

Before marriage and their clitoridectomy, however, women enjoy a degree of sexual freedom, which is rendered visible by the heavy beaded necklaces worn by teenage girls, given to them by warriors as symbols of their status as nekarai, meaning steady girlfriends and sexual partners. However, as the Rendille have a taboo against marrying within the clan, and the girls have few opportunities of meeting men of other clans, marriages are arranged by her parents and an older suitor, and involve payment of bridewealth in livestock.

At the wedding itself, elders collect blood to drink from a camel (or an ox among the Ariaal) which is sacrificed to Ngai (God) to safeguard the wedding (read the section on Turkana rain & sacrifice, which is similar in respect of sacrifice). The animal is apportioned according to custom, with oil set aside as anointment for the bride's mother. Following the marriage, the woman is presented with her own house (the term for marriage apparently means 'house building'). In the same way that the naapo fire symbolises continuity in transience, so does the bride's new house, for the materials used to build it are taken from the home of her mother.

Each household consists of either husband and wife and their younger children or just a widow and her younger children: Rendille widows do not remarry and, as most Rendille men marry at about 30 years of age to girls of about 13 years of age, there is consequently a high proportion of widows.


After their eleven years of warriorhood, the warriors of the same age-set celebrate another rite of passage, the naapo ceremony, in which they become elders with full rights to marry and partake in the meetings of elders in the naapo enclosure.
   Marriage, which is quick to follow, confirms a man's status as an elder in the same way that circumcision validates his warriorhood. The three year interval in the cyclical Rendille calendar occurring between the marriages of an age-set and the circumcision of the following one is filled by men newly elevated to elderhood and older boys not yet initiated into warriorhood sharing livestock camp responsibilities. All the married men (elders) of a clan have equal status and rule by consensus in decision making.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
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